The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the best-selling two-seater convertible of all time and the stuff of motoring legends.
According to one oft-cited story, the car may owe its genesis to an American motoring journalist, Bob Hall. He was asked in 1979 at a meeting of top executives attended by Mazda’s development director Kenichi Yamamoto what type of car the Japanese firm should be building.
“A compact, open two-seater”, was Hall’s reply. The Japanese technician listened politely and made copious notes.
Hall enthused about a model in the spirit of an MGB or an Alfa Spider, “but reliable enough to start up on a rainy day”. The aim was to come up with a car that offered a pure driving experience rather than straight-line tarmac performance.
It took 10 years for the first Miata to appear, but that conversation marks the start of a runaway success story that continues to this day and has changed the face of motoring.
The wraps came off the MX-5 roadster for the first time at the Chicago Auto Show 25 years ago. It revived near-dormant enthusiasm for roadsters and encouraged other manufacturers to think along similar lines.
Without the Miata’s success, there would have been no Mercedes SLK, Audi TT or BMW Z4, leading designers in Stuttgart, Ingolstadt or Munich agree. “It was the MX-5 that brought back the affordable roadster and paved the way for a host of open two-seaters,” says Cologne-based designer Paolo Tumminelli.
Development chief Yamamoto was sceptical at first.
He spent a whole day whizzing around the base of Mount Fuji on twisty roads in a British-made Triumph Spitfire before emerging with a smile on his face and the conviction that a Mazda roadster would work.
He went on to defend what became known as Project 729 against all comers. With its trademark pop-up headlamps, the Miata caused a sensation when it first broke cover in Chicago in 1989.
It became a favourite with well-heeled brokers on New York’s Wall Street, who were soon paying the kind of premium normally reserved for Porsche or Ferrari models in order to secure an example before the regular delivery time.
The formula for the success of the MX-5 is easily explained.
There are similar cars that consume less fuel or offer more passenger space and a larger boot for luggage. Yet few cars in this class had the Miata’s light touch and feel, a two-seater with just enough room for an attache case, but designed for fresh-air motoring pleasure.
Speed was not of the essence either. It was enough to keep driving interesting but certainly not in the Porsche class. With just 90 horsepower on tap, the car reached 100km/h from zero in 10.6 seconds.
With a top speed of 175 km/h the low-profile Japanese car was no racer.
“Yet anyone who has driven one of these little roadsters across the Alps will have no need of a Porsche,” says Dieter Becker of the German MX-5 Blue Sky Club based in Cologne.
The feathery weight of the first examples – which tipped the scales at just 981 kilograms – along with the low-slung driving position, a slick, close-ratio gearbox and rear-wheel drive combined to “create the perfect car for a twisty country road,” Becker says.
The enthusiasm is shared by fans the world over and the MX-5 turned out to be a good business proposition for Mazda.
Sales proved to be steady and up until 1998 the company had moved 431,506 examples of the model, which has the internal codename NA.
Its successor, the NB, racked up 291,123 registrations and the third generation, the NC, is still going strong.
Overall sales stand at well in excess of 900,000 units.
In 2000 the MX-5 even earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s best-selling open sports car. The current model boasts more power, with upward of 126 horses available, and at 1100kg the MX-5 is still a lightweight.
Admittedly it costs double what the original sold for 25 years ago.
“Compared to the price of a red-blooded sports car, it is still cheap,” Becker insists. Despite the success, the Mazda MX-5 has retained its reputation as an underdog.
“People sometimes look askance at you when you are sitting in an expensive, upmarket roadster, but people tend to smile when you are at the wheel of an MX-5,” Becker says.
While people like Becker look after cherished examples of the Miata, the Japanese maker is working flat out to come up with a worthy replacement. Roadster fans will only have to wait until mid-2015 at the very latest, Mazda sources have revealed.